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Who is Mideo Cruz and why are people baying for his head?

MANILA - Off with his head! Or at least boycott his exhibit. Artist Mideo Cruz is now at the center of one of the biggest controversies in the Philippine visual arts scene. His latest work Poleteismo is being vilified left and right by various religious groups and influential leaders, with a columnist even suggesting that Cruz should be forced to drink muriatic acid. Cruz Poleteismo is part of the exhibit KUL, group exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Main Gallery showing until August 21, 2011.It was launched on June 17 on the occasion of CCPs celebration of Jose Rizals 150th birthday. (The exhibit has been shut down, beginning today.) Cruz is somewhat bewildered and a little sad over the violent reactions. A self-effacing man who avoids direct questions about how he interprets his own art, Cruz said he never expected the negative reactions coming from various quarters. I never go out of my way to offend; but I do like to provoke debates and critical thinking. Art is a way of expressing ones views about the world, culture and history, and this is what I do in my work. The audience is free to make their own conclusions and interpretations about the images I create, but I must confess I didnt expect for anyone to react so violently against Poleteismo. The worse that I wouldve expected is for no one to come to the CCP and see my work or those of the my colleagues in this exhibition, he said. There are those who might say that Cruz is being a bit too naive when he said he was surprised by the outrage generated by his work. He put up pictures of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary alongside condoms; he got plastic piggy banks and put them inside a glass display case, the sort thats commonly found in churches; he hung crucifixes and rosaries next to wooden phalluses. Like reporter Logan said, the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic Country, so the reaction of some quarters could not have been such a shock. I wanted to provoke people into thinking. I titled my work Poleteismo which loosely translates into many beliefs or many deities. Throughout history, humanity has grown to create new gods and these are not always religious figures but concepts and objects. Some have taken to worshipping money; some see politicians as godsend. People create idols and these idols whether or not theyre deserving of idolatry or worship affect our lives and how we function and see the world, he said.

Critics of Poleteismo may not know the fact that it has been exhibited since 2002 in venues such as the Loyola School of Theology in Ateneo de Manila University, UP Vargas Museum, Kulay Diwa in Paranaque City, and was also featured in the music video of Anghel sa Lupa by Stonefree. Cruz has recreated the piece every time it was presented for exhibition. Poleteismo is actually three walls entirely covered with various images and papers calendars, bus tickets, old school certificates, photographs, political posters, postcards, advertisements and other printed materials. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not the only images featured, but Robert Jaworski endorsing Dr. J. rubbing alcohol; Alma Concepcion smiling over Champion cigarettes; two Thai actors selling Coca-cola, and US President Barack Obama. In the meantime, on one free-standing wall hangs a life-size crucifix festooned with scapulars and rosaries, as well as a red phallus. Cruz shrugs off the outrage over the phalluses. Its symbolic for patriarchy, a symbol of power. There are those who worship power, who put their faith in men who wield power even if the power is used against women, or against the whole of society. The fight for sexual and gender equality continues, doesnt it? But the balance continues to be tipped in favor of the phallus. Is this good or bad? You decide, he said. The former student of the University of Sto. Tomas (UST) is not new to the art scene at all and is in fact well

known not only in local art circles, but internationally as well, having opened exhibits in Switzerland, Italy and the United States. He was also recipient of the Ateneo Art Awards in 2007 and awarded the CCP 13 artists awards in 2003. The man is widely traveled and has taken time to read up on the cultural history of religious iconography and the origins of religious symbolism. Everything around us can be considered as symbols, some are actually only symbols more than anything else. How we understand these symbols, how we use them is what gives them power and meaning, he said. Far from accusations that Cruz is only trying to generate controversy to be noticed, Cruz sheepishly admits that Poleteismo is actually the product of house cleaning. Apparently, the man is a pack-rat and for the last two decades he has been collecting various scraps of paper and whatnot with the general intention of some day putting them to use. We were cleaning the house and we discovered all this, he said, pointing to the walls with their thousands of colorful, conflicting images like those from a series of MTV videos from various genres looped together. He and partner, artist and singer Raquel de Loyala, usually spend two to three days pasting and putting together the massive collage that has sent religious groups seething. Cruz frequently tries to shy away from questions that seek his own opinion on his work, but when pressed, he answers even if reluctantly. This is how I see the Filipino way of life colorful, varied, full of conflicting beliefs and values. Cant you just see these same images pasted on the walls of houses in the urban poor communities? And Filipino society, its racked with economic and political turmoil, and then theres religion which frequently involves itself in the entire conglomeration of issues and developments, he said. Sure enough, if one does as Cruz advises close your eyes after seeing the images, breathe and think the walls begin to speak about the Filipino condition. Theres the carton poster on the alphabet with A standing for Apple when apples are not grown in the Philippines and J is for Jeep and not for jeepney. Theres the calendar where former First Lady Imelda Marcos smiles beatifically at her beholder. Then there are the liquor bottles that used to contain expensive alcohol that could very well symbolize the corruption of the country because of the profligacy of its so-called leaders in government. I dont like telling people what I mean when I paint something or what I want to say when I include an image in an installation. I would much rather that people talk about the work and think about theyve seen, Cruz said.

An Interview with Mideo Cruz


Mideo Cruz is the artist behind the controversial artworks being exhibited in the Cultural Center of the Philippines. His works have enraged bishops with their supposedly blasphemous content and have made Pro-Life Philippines take up a moral crusade, threatening to sue the CCP and the artist in an effort to censor Mideo Cruzs freedom of expression for perceived outrages against their faith. What follows is an email interview with the artist. The interview has been edited for grammar and clarity. Kenneth Keng: Kindly briefly introduce yourself for the benefit of our readership. Mideo Cruz: Im a visual artist who commonly tries to cross borders of discipline in producing my works. The most notable work Ive created in the past is the banquet for which I was awarded the Ateneo Art Awards in 2007. Ive frequently been invited outside the country for my creative works and was awarded the CCP 13 artists awards in 2003. Actually I feel uncomfortable with this question can I just attach my CV? Could you describe the piece in question?

Mideo Cruz: A wall collage; I started doing it since 2002 from things that Ive collected since Im in high school. The manner was practically inspired by what we see in common houses where people put pictures of celebrities, politicians, etc on the wall of their houses. Relic (cross) originally titled relic of my nation, done in 2004. The making of the Filipinos after several layers of colonization. Partly inspired by how we got the name of the country in paradigm to the monarchal trend of collecting religious relics. Poon (chirst the king) deconstructing the sacredness and reconstructing the icon with parallel meanings. Coca cola and mickey mouse as epitome of neo liberalism. Most of the outcry has been about the phallic object placed on the works. Phalluses have been objects of devotion in many cultures; they use them as amulets, symbolic statues, etc. They might be a symbol of power and patriarchy. What would you say was the general intention of your piece, and how does it fit into your existing body of work? Mideo Cruz: Im exploring a lot about the nature of the deity. How people attributed the sacredness. How symbols evolve from various civilizations, how the worship evolves. But this particular piece is more regional and cultural attributing to our psyche as Filipinos. And also pertaining to our aesthetic perception. How do you feel about the current threat of lawsuit unless your work is taken down? Mideo Cruz: As far as I know the CCP is an independent institution. An arena where academic discourse is welcome. The conservative interference may be their means of showing their power over the so called morals very similar to what my motivation was in the work. Phallic symbols may stand for power. It contributes more to the readings of my work. CCP has already organized a public forum on Friday to discuss the matter, but it seems that the CBCP and Pro-life Philippines then responded with an ultimatum for its takedown by Thursday. Have the CBCP or Pro-Life Philippines responded to any of yours or CCPs invitations for dialogue? Mideo Cruz: I dont really know how it is going with the conversation of CBCP and CCP. And im wondering why they dont want to wait for the dialogue. From their latest pronouncement it sounds like they are also agitating the administration of UST to go against CCP and the artists involved. And finally, a follow up question that you dont have to answer if you dont want to. Are you aware of any other blasphemous works in the Philippines? If there are, why do you think they targeted your work? Mideo Cruz: A lot has been done before using the imagery of the catholic faith. In CCP Jose Legaspi did a Madonna and Child with Mary vomiting to the child Jesus, Paul Piper did a Sto. Nino out of a barbie doll and dressed it with comdoms. Alwin Reamillo did a Mckey Mouse Sto. Nino, Louie Cordero did a painting of Christ the King with a McDonalds figure With their criticism of the church, do you think El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere are blasphemous? Mideo Cruz: Blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder. I dont even think of my work as blasphemy; instead, I think of them as a critque but if you will see it as blasphemy, I might as well consider that Rizals work is blaspmemy too. Thanks for your time.